A Window Into My Son’s Soul

One warm day this past summer my whole family was enjoying a day in the sun in our backyard. My father and sister-in-law were with us, grilling dinner on the barbecue, and my two sons were playing with my husband in a canoe that we had gotten recently. We had decided to store it in the middle of our backyard so that they could play in it while the weather was nice, and they loved it.

I was sitting on a bench, enjoying watching them pretend to row the canoe along a lake. Daniel, who had recently turned two, was standing up on one of the seats, which seemed precarious but fairly safe, as the ground around the canoe is pretty soft. Sure enough, he fell out of the canoe, slowly, without hurting himself, but he was really scared. He began to cry, and my husband stood up to go help him. Our older son, Michael, who was four, began to scream and cling to his father’s leg. He didn’t want him to help Daniel, and said that he would hold him and keep him there.

I got up immediately and moved to them, and held Michael so that his father could go help his younger brother. Michael began thrashing, hitting and kicking, and saying that he was going to push Daniel out of the boat. I decided to move us away, as I was in an awkward position to hold Michael while keeping myself safe, and he was clearly too upset to act rationally.  Also, his brother was still very scared and crying, and our proximity wasn’t helping.

I picked Michael up and carried him, fighting with all his might, over to the bench I had been sitting on. I sat him down and held my arm on his lap, keeping his legs from kicking me.  He screamed at me to let him go, and I told him “I am going to keep us all safe. If you can keep from hurting me or running away, I will move my hands.” He said that he could, so I set my hands on either side of him on the bench. He immediately tried to run away, and I held him there, as gently as I could, until he stopped fighting and I put my hands at his sides once more.

I didn’t say much. I told him, “I can tell this is hard right now. I’m going to stay here with you while it’s hard.” Every now and then he would try to run, or begin hitting or kicking once more, and I would use my hands to keep us there and safe. Otherwise, I just knelt in front of him, trying to keep eye contact, and resting my hands at his sides. Every once and a while, I would say, “I love you,” or “I’m right here with you.”

After a few minutes, his fighting became less physical, and more verbal. He began telling me anything he could think of to get away. As I have seen him do this many times before, I recognized it as an attempt to flee; he was clearly fighting some feelings that were frightening to him, and he wanted desperately not to face them. He told me he had to go to the bathroom, that he was hungry, that he needed this or that. Each request became more desperate, more frantic, and each time I tried to let him know that we would go to the bathroom, that later, he would eat.  I reminded him that he was OK, and that he had everything he needed right now.

Eventually he lashed out angrily at the safest target: me. He told me I was a scary mama, that my face was what was scaring him, my hands were hurting him, and he needed me to leave.  He told me that he wanted me to go away, that he wanted his Aunt Dee to be his mama. He told me I was poo-poo and pee-pee, that I had come out of his bottom, and that he was going to flush me down the toilet. I tried to remember that this was all his fear talking, lashing out, trying to keep him safe, and I just kept telling him. “I love you.” “I am your mama, and I will not leave you.” “Here is my face looking at you, loving you.” “My hands are right here, keeping you safe.”

This went on for a while, long enough that our food was cooked and people were ready to go inside. I felt that having so many eyes on him was not helping him feel safe, so I encouraged everyone to go upstairs and start eating. They did, and this sparked a panic in Michael.

“I don’t want them to eat without me! I don’t want them to eat my food!” he screamed.  I assured him that no one would eat his food, and that we would be going upstairs soon, but that I wanted to stay with him while things were so hard. He fought again a few times, not as fervently, to get past me, and I used only enough force to keep him there and us safe once more.

Finally he looked into my eyes, and I could see tears welling up in his. It was the first time that he initiated eye contact during all of this upset. He said “I don’t want Daniel to take my food.  He takes everything from me. I don’t want Daniel to take anything from me ever again!” and began to cry, very hard. I moved in close and held him, while he cried and cried. The tears poured out, and neither of us spoke much at all. I kept holding him, peeking in every once in a while, reminding him, “I’m right here, baby.”

Eventually the crying waned, and Michael glanced up at me looking pouty, almost a little embarrassed, and made a half-hearted noise, as if to say “Go away.”  I decided that he had probably released what he was going to for now, and I thought it would be a good time to reconnect. I jumped back a little at his sound, and said, “Whoa!  Are you trying to scare me away?” with a little smile. His eyes twinkled as he sensed a game.  “Yeah”, he said, “Roar!”

“Whoa!” I exclaimed. “Well, you are going to have to be a lot louder than that to scare me away…”

“Rooooaaar!!!” yelled Michael, jumping off the bench. I began to run around the yard, yelping in mock fear while he chased me, roaring and laughing. After a couple of minutes, I stopped near our stairs, and he ran into my arms. He looked up warmly at me and said “Mama, will you carry me up the stairs like a baby?” I happily scooped him into my arms and carried him upstairs, giving him kisses while he gazed deeply into my eyes.  Halfway up, he said to me, “Mama, I want you to be my mama. Dee-Dee can be Daniel’s mama.”  While this was clearly not the entire truth, it was a wonderful reconnection.

Over the next few days, our connection was sweet and strong. I noticed a shift in how Michael was with his brother as well; while he was only slightly more patient and understanding with him, he much more often called to me for help when he was getting frustrated, where before he would have just lashed out at him. Mostly, I felt like I had been gifted a glimpse inside of his heart, into a hurt that he hadn’t shown me before, and my new awareness helped me to better keep his perspective in mind when struggles did occur.

-A mother of two in Berkeley, California

6 thoughts on “A Window Into My Son’s Soul

  1. Whoa! That’s why you recently did a call re sibling relationships! Pretty heavy stuff.

    I hope Daniel also gets a chance to work through whatever made him go so crazy after such a teensy fall.

  2. Thanks, Kat! We love hearing these stories too. Let us know if you have one like it to share.

  3. tears*

    my son just turned 5 and he has a little 8 month-old sister (both adopted) and little sister has been with us for the passed 5 months. This morning (and Monday) when i dropped him off at school, he would just grab me and start crying saying he is tired and wants to go home with me… i could not do stay listening because his teacher took him, literally pulled him off me and i just left. (being a teacher, we’ve found that after a few minutes the child is usually calm and enjoying the day)..but being your own child, knowing about staylistening, i wished i rather chose that option. xx

  4. I’m so moved by this mom’s capacity to keep a loving perspective and keep things safe while her son experienced these big feelings. Not easy work, but oh the rewards that come! In moments when I am challenged as a parent, having stories like this one helps me re-connect to myself and to a larger perspective on what’s happening in the moment. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I love this story! Staylistening can be the hardest and the most rewarding thing! Just this past week, my youngest, now 15, did a hilarious imitation of me doing staylistening with her. She did it with gusto and love. We all shared a hearty laugh at her antics, and her rendition of me. We’ve been having an intense time with her recently–boyfriend and independence issues–and yet my husband and I have been insisting on maintaining connection.
    Somehow, I think that the connections we made with staylistening those oh-so-many years ago are serving us now. I don’t think that it’s coincidence that she would dredge up those stories at this particular time.
    Thank you for the reminder.

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